Evolving How We Approach Competitive Assessment

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Being able to run a competitive assessment, especially to manage through disruption is paramount these days. To do it effectively, one should assess primary, secondary, and tertiary competitors. Yet, this approach can become a challenge when required within a short time, leaving organizations with the option to focus mostly on primary competitors in order to deliver efficiently. The traditional approach of focusing mostly on primary competitors can also have its draw backs. It limits focus and creates blind spots from the inability to assess the entire competitive landscape, thus making it harder for organizations to manage through disruption. A third and more detailed method exists: use a seven-step approach that includes assessing the value chain, understanding the jobs-to-be-done in each segment, and identifying key trends that could help deliver on these jobs. This approach allows us to balance the need to appeal to investors and analyst’s quarterly report comparisons, while managing through disruption.


The quest to know and understand our competition is a never-ending journey. Yet, we often allow traditions to become our new narratives. For some time now, I have noticed that most competitive assessments analyze only primary competitors — primary competitors are your direct competitors, who have similar products and offerings as you do and may use similar tactics to deliver, given that they may have similar capabilities — secondary and tertiary competitors are usually omitted. And I can’t help but ask, if the goal of running a competitive assessment is to identify key leaders in the industry and understand what trends and actions they are undertaking, then why do we focus so strongly on primary competitors, when it is more likely that disruption may occur through tertiary competitors? Netflix disrupted Blockbuster, but Netflix was not one of Blockbuster’s primary competitors. Amazon disrupted the e-commerce industry, yet it was not a primary competitor at the initial stage. These examples can go on and on, the pattern remains consistent. Maybe, we omit secondary and tertiary competitors from assessment because we fear running such competitive assessment may take too long. Maybe, we are incentivized to focus on primary competitors since that is what investors and analyst focus on. Or maybe, we don’t know how to continuously assess all three types of competitors within a limited time. Either way, something feels off.

What if we could assess all three types of competitors, especially when running a competitive assessment for innovation, and still do it within a limited time? What if we could set up our competitive assessment to effectively capture key trends that could solve customers pain points and help us manage for disruption? What if we could balance the need to appeal to investors and analyst’s comparisons and manage for innovation? To answer these series of “what ifs”, I developed a seven-step approach that I believe can help us run competitive assessment efficiently and effectively to capture all the types of competitors and identify key leaders and relevant trends.

7 Steps to Effectively and Efficiently Run a Competitive Assessment

    1. Map out the value chain (not the process maps) for delivering your product or service
    2. Identify the jobs-to-be done and pain points in each section of the value chain
    3. Identify the key leaders in each section that are solving the critical jobs-to-be done. Note that key leaders do not have to be related to your industry. They just must be great at that section. For example, if your value chain includes personalization of products to meet client’s need, some key leaders in that space may be Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, etc. It is also more likely that your primary competitors will be key leaders in a section of the value chain
    4. Identify the key trends (specifically technology, but including regulatory, customer, environmental, etc.) that competitors used to become key leaders in each section
    5. Evaluate the maturity stage of those trends. A new technology may still be in its early adoption stage and can have some feasibility and viability risks
    6. Size up each section to identify opportunities for where to play compared to where other key leaders are playing, including your primary competitors
    7. Run your own gap analysis to understand where you are and what you need to do to win in your “Where to Play”

There are assumptions made when we use either this seven-step approach, which focuses on primary, secondary, and tertiary competitors, or the traditional approach, which focuses on primary competitors only. One major similarity in assumption for both approaches is that they both assume that all competitors in a market are playing to win. But a major difference between both approaches is the magnitude of the risk this assumption can cause, if false. The assumption that all competitors are playing to win is not always true.  A competitor could be playing to NOT lose rather than to win. This means that the competitor is fine with not gaining first mover advantage, but rather is willing to have another competitor take the risk as well as the benefit of going first. With a focus on primary competitors only, we could find the primary competitors fixated on each other, each waiting for the other to move first, while running behind changing trends. The seven-step approach uses a large sample size compared with the traditional approach; hence, the impact from the deviation in the assumption is milder.

Some years back, if we wanted to buy a book, our first point of contact was the bookstore. Capacity of inventory and genres of books held were the competitive advantage. We thought, the larger the bookstore the more impregnable to disrupt. Those in the bookstore industry perhaps assessed their primary competitor, another bookstore, to see what new books they had and how big they were compared to them. With the launch of the internet, customers hired Amazon to solve an existing job-to-be-done: ease to access and purchase a book. And, the rest is history. A new trend was missed within that industry, and it failed to manage through disruption. Unfortunately, that cycle continues to repeat itself. Gaining competitive advantage today has shifted from holding product superiority to evolving through agile business models, and the need to change how we run competitive assessment is paramount, if we are to manage through disruption.


Gaining competitive advantage has evolved beyond running SWOT analysis and doing analytical exercises to determine what opportunities are out there. It includes envisioning the future and building the capabilities to deliver on that future. It involves designing a business model that is not easily replicated – a business model focused on distinctive approach to solving the customers’ needs and wants. It involves moving beyond analyzing only primary competitors to reviewing key leaders in all segments of the value chain to understand what each key leader in that segment is doing differently. Following this evolved approach to competitive assessment helps create a distinct, targeted, and insightful value proposition that enables you to win.